Classes have officially been in session for just over a month at Long Island University-Post, but students involved with Post’s student newspaper, The Pioneer, have been grappling with a real-world lesson on press freedom since this past Fall.
Queens Free Press obtained copies of emails sent to LIU faculty by Professor Willie Hiatt. An email from November 3, 2016, mentions that The Pioneer’s budget was cut from $40,000 to $27,000, and makes the argument that this action is “…punitive and not budgetary.”
“Pioneer students have encountered a gag order since early in the current administration,” writes Hiatt in the email, “but the crackdown worsened after Editor-in-Chief Maxime Devillaz’s comprehensive reporting on the Brooklyn faculty lockout and direct action and the Board of Trustees meeting.”
Devillaz did some extremely comprehensive reporting on the lockout, despite the circumstances he faced. According to Devillaz, the article was prepared with quotes provided by the Communications team hired by the University, and not by the University administrators themselves.
“We can’t really speak to the people in charge…,” explains Devillaz, “We can’t get the information that we need through these PR people.”
To illustrate the point about the crackdown, Hiatt’s email points to the fact that LIU’s Dean of Students needed to vet an article on LIU’s Tilles Center before The Pioneer could run it.
Maxime Devillaz elaborates on the problems faced by the students working on the Tilles Center article. "We wanted a picture with our story,” explains Devillaz. Students were told that they had to send the story to the University’s Public Relations department for approval.
In the end, the story had to run without a picture.
Hiatt’s email also notes that RAs at LIU are allowed to give statements to the paper only as students, and not as University representatives. "This crackdown is serious on many fronts,” explains Hiatt’s email, “The fundamental disregard for First Amendment rights (telling tuition-paying students that they cannot speak) opens the door to litigation and National Labor Relations Board intervention.”
The Pioneer was due to go to print the same week as Hiatt’s email. So few sources responded to requests for comment that editors worried that they might not have enough stories to print.
The gag order is but one indication of a much larger problem on Post’s campus.
“There is distinct lack of transparency on the campus. the gag on the Pioneer is only one aspect of it,” explains Barbara Fowles, Department Chair and Professor of Communications and Film. For example, Fowles points to the fact that faculty are hired and fired with no discussion. The University hired Congressman Steve Israel, and Fowles says that people found out about it from Newsday, not the University. Also, the University won’t announce new building plans till construction is already underway.
This lack of transparency has also created a culture of fear at Post.
“I know that non-tenured faculty are reluctant to speak out because the University President might see that as a black mark against their tenure prospects,” says Fowles, “Faculty members, of course, may speak to the newspaper, but staff, even student staff…have been told to refer reporters to the PR office.”
This all also makes it difficult to teach students journalistic values and principles.
Now, according to Hiatt’s emails, this has also made it difficult for The Pioneer to produce a print edition this semester.
Students and alumni alike have refused to stay silent. On December 17, 2016, The Pioneer ran a letter from former Pioneer Head Copy Editor and LIU Post alumnus, Danielle Sposato. Sposato mentions that her experiences with The Pioneer enhanced the education she received as an English major. Additionally, her work with The Pioneer helped her land an internship as a student, as well as a full-time job offer after graduation.
In other words, for Sposato, The Pioneer wasn’t just an extracurricular activity. Her experiences with The Pioneer pulled classroom lessons off the blackboard, and out of textbooks, and made them real.
But there is one “real world” situation that students and some faculty are struggling to explain.
Every year, LIU hosts the George Polk Awards in Journalism. The Polk “…focuses on the intrepid, bold, and influential work of the reporters themselves, placing a premium on investigative work that is original, resourceful, and thought-provoking.”
The University is celebrating the innovative work of others, while making it difficult for their own students to produce work of the same caliber.
“How can this ‘respected’ university host such a prestigious award ceremony, such as the Polk Awards, and yet, censor its own institution?” asks Sposato in her letter, “It makes a mockery of the entire award ceremony, and it is simply unacceptable.”
There are others who are also struggling to understand how LIU could host such a prestigious award ceremony, celebrating accomplishments in the field of journalism, while censoring its own student journalists.
"The fact that LIU hosts the Polk awards is deeply ironic…” says Barbara Fowles, “It is also ironic that a recent issue of a glossy alumni magazine features a full-page photo of the soccer team…with Maxime in the front row. And the caption actually brags about his accomplishments winning awards for The Pioneer…The message seems to be that journalism is good, but not for students.”
Pioneer staff, both past and present, have been sent scrambling to try to figure out a solution.
“We have to figure out a way to sell a lot of ads, or go solely online, but with that short notice we know we’re going to lose a lot of readership,” says Devillaz.
Students aren’t getting much help from the administration.
“Once we found out [about the budget cuts], we set up a meeting with the people in charge of the budget—which is the Student Life Director…and the Dean Of Students,” explains Devillaz, “Actually, the Dean of Students set up the meeting with us.”
In the end, the Dean never showed up to the meeting, and according to Devillaz, the person who showed up didn’t have any explanation for the budget cuts. Instead he just apologized for the cuts.
Towards the end of last semester, Devillaz sat down for another meeting with LIU President, Kimberly Cline.
Ironically, a meeting where attendees were going to be discussing transparency was anything but transparent.
Attendees sat at a divided table—with administrators and communications staffers on one side, and student journalists on the other.
“She was very well prepared,” says Devillaz of Cline, “She gave me maybe ½ an hour and I had maybe 20-25 questions.”
According to Devillaz, Cline also brought three other people with her to the meeting.
“They’ve hired a new Chief Communications Officer from the company that the Board of Trustee’s President works for, and this guy is supposed to…oversee all communications, and be our first contact whenever we want responses to something,” says Devillaz.
Particularly telling is the fact that they would not let Devillaz record the conversation.
“It was not recorded, which obviously gave them an advantage,” says Devillaz.
Indeed it did. According to Devillaz, those who were there representing the University played off each other—each jumping in when one of the others seemed “clueless.” Also, they asked that most of what they said be kept off the record.
Devillaz says that Cline claimed that, “This is how it works at all universities.”
Since the meeting with Cline, Post students have been in touch with the SPLC, to try to figure out ways to get administrators to understand the negatives associated with the gag order, and get them to see that maybe, this isn't how it works at all universities.
It is difficult to write a conclusion to a story that is still in the process of being written. A new semester has begun, and a new editorial staff has taken over, but unless the administration experiences a change of heart, there is no telling what sort of future is in store for The Pioneer and press freedom at LIU.
“Right now it looks like we’re going to have to run on donations and advertisement sales, which makes us more independent, but its not really reliable,” explains Devillaz.
All of this while, as Hiatt’s very first email on the cuts to The Pioneer notes, five members of the administration’s “inner circle” appeared at a faculty meeting and discussed the university’s “improved financial standing.”